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TV review: Epic 'Shogun' action-packed, intriguing, moving

Anna Sawai plays Mariko in "Shogun." Photo courtesy of FX
Anna Sawai plays Mariko in "Shogun." Photo courtesy of FX

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 7 (UPI) -- Shogun, premiering Feb. 27 on Hulu and FX, is an epic adaptation of James Clavell's novel. The adaptation is immediately engrossing and only builds the intrigue in subsequent episodes.

In 1600, Portuguese Catholics trade with Japan and keep Japan their trade secret. The Japanese ruler, the Taiko, has died, while his heir is only a child, leaving a council of five leaders in charge until the heir turns 16.

That same year, British sailor John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis) crash-lands in Japan. Blackthorne and his surviving crew see Japanese people for the first time.

Shogun captures Blackthorne's feeling as a stranger in a strange land. Lost in translation is one thing, but at least modern people know Japan exists.

Blackthorne discovers Japanese architecture and customs are different from England. The longer Blackthorne is there, he bonds with his hosts, including sweet moments of genuine connection.

Hiroyuki Sanada plays Toranaga in "Shogun." Photo courtesy of FX
Hiroyuki Sanada plays Toranaga in "Shogun." Photo courtesy of FX

Most striking to Blackthorne is Japanese soldiers' willingness to die, foregoing even basic self-preservation if it won't serve their commander. He doesn't even know that Taiko's widow, Fuji (Moeka Hoshi), was forced to kill her second child to protect her firstborn politically.

Action picks up at the end of Episode 2 with a violent assassination attempt. There are battles with small armies shooting flaming arrows, torch-lit squads marching through alleys at night and even a chase between massive naval vessels.

Moeka Hoshi plays Fuji in "Shogun." Photo courtesy of FX
Moeka Hoshi plays Fuji in "Shogun." Photo courtesy of FX

The resources to portray such battles are far greater in 2024 than the previous 1980 miniseries adaptation of Shogun. But, Rachel Kondo and Justin Marks' adaptation is equally focused on the brutality of the politics, with cable/streaming allowances for language, sex and violence.

Cosmo Jarvis plays John Blackthorne. Photo courtesy of FX
Cosmo Jarvis plays John Blackthorne. Photo courtesy of FX

A sense of humor does emerge within the intense politics and culture clashes. The first character to display one is Father Rodrigues (Nestor Carbonell), who escorts Blackthorne to Lord Toranago (Hiroyuki Sanada), one of the five council leaders, in the second episode.

Rodrigues' attitude is that yes, Japan is so different from Western culture that he can't even try to follow the logic of customs. Blackthorne appears to warm to this approach when he learns to play up cultural differences to serve his purposes, sometimes even making up Western customs just to challenge his hosts.

Tadanobu Asano plays Yabushige. Photo courtesy of FX
Tadanobu Asano plays Yabushige. Photo courtesy of FX

Toranago welcomes Blackthorne as the other four leaders threaten to overthrow the heir before he can take charge. Toranago also has a translator, Mariko (Anna Sawei) to translate for Blackthorne.

The first two episodes spend enough time with the four lords, all making enough decisions to distinguish themselves. The main conflict is between Toranago and Yabushige (Tadanobu Asano), lord of the Izo fief and mastermind of the council coup.

But, Blackthorne also brings news of the outside world that threatens Japan. Blackthorne knows where Portuguese bases are in Macau, and that Portugal and Spain have agreed Portugal can claim Japan for themselves.

Shogun captures the world of late feudal Japan as it collides with western cultures. The characters on both sides show the depth of how those societies affect individuals.

Episodes of Shogun stream at 12:01 a.m. EST on Hulu and 10 p.m. EST on FX Tuesdays.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.